Welcome to Dr. James Wilson's Adrenal Fatigue Blog

Is Adrenal Fatigue Hereditary and Adrenal Fatigue & Irregular Heartbeat

Q. Can adrenal fatigue or stress cause an irregular heartbeat? Can it be fixed?

heart on stone by Flickr user epSos.de

Image credit: Flickr user epSos.de

Both stress and adrenal fatigue can cause irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmia. Stress can often cause tachycardia, or a faster than normal rhythm over 100 beats per minute. Adrenal fatigue can lead to high potassium and low sodium levels, which can interfere with the electrical signals that regulate heart rate.

If the irregular heartbeat is due to stress or adrenal fatigue, it can be corrected by reducing the stress or treating the adrenals and balancing electrolyte levels. However, there are many causes of arrhythmia including heart disease, thyroid problems, or taking certain drugs or cold medications. It is important to determine what is causing the arrhythmia and treat accordingly.

Q.  Is adrenal fatigue hereditary? If you suspect it in your teen daughter, should you get it checked? One of my doctors says it can be checked through bloodwork. Is that true? I have only had mine checked through saliva testing.

Adrenal fatigue is not hereditary, per se, but both genetics and environment can influence cortisol reactivity to stress. Yes, if you suspect adrenal fatigue in your daughter, test for it. Cortisol can be tested in the blood, but almost all serum (blood) cortisol is bound to protein. The body can’t use bound hormones. I prefer salivary levels because they represent “free” or unbound cortisol, the form that is actually available for use in the tissues. Also, cortisol levels change significantly throughout the day. Salivary tests make it easy to test cortisol levels four or more times in one day and determine the cortisol’s daily pattern.

About the Author

Dr. Lise NaugleDr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

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Adrenal Fatigue & Vision and How Long Does it Take to Recover from Adrenal Fatigue?

Question: What impact can adrenal fatigue have on vision? Is there a connection between adrenal fatigue and cataracts?

eye closeup by Flickr user Gregoire Lannoy

Image credit: Flickr user Gregoire Lannoy

The adrenal hormone cortisol is the body’s best anti-inflammatory. Because cortisol is low in adrenal fatigue, inflammatory eye conditions such as iritis, uveitis, and dry eyes can worsen with adrenal fatigue. Cataracts aren’t directly related to adrenal fatigue, but some people with lowered adrenal function or inflammatory conditions are prescribed glucocorticoids—synthetic drugs such as prednisone that mimic cortisol. These drugs can cause a particular type of cataract, a steroid cataract. In addition, these synthetic steroids have the possibility of increasing pressure in the eye which could predispose someone towards glaucoma.

Question: I’ve been off and on the protocol for a couple of years. When I stop it, I notice that the fatigue comes back, although not nearly as severe as it was years ago. Will I need to be on this for the rest of my life? Can I recover fully? Does the amount of time it takes to recover depend on the severity of the adrenal fatigue and how long it went untreated?

Good question: One of the biggest problems I encountered in my practice while working with patients with adrenal fatigue is that as they started to feel better, they would think that the supplements were no longer necessary. They would try and discontinue them too soon and then would be back in my office with the same problems as before. People vary in the time it takes their bodies to recover. Often, someone begins to feel better within a few weeks or months, but typically, it takes someone about 6-9 months to fully recover from mild adrenal fatigue, 12-18 months for moderate adrenal fatigue, and sometimes it can take 2 years or more to fully recover from severe adrenal fatigue. If you continue to be under extreme stress, you may need to support your body for a longer period of time. However, barring an extreme circumstance, you should not need to be on supplements that support your adrenals for the rest of your life.

Recovering from adrenal fatigue takes time, but it is possible. Good luck!

About the Author

Dr. Lise NaugleDr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

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The Adrenal & Thyroid Relationship and Mouth Infection & Adrenal Fatigue

Question: How much work do the thyroid and adrenal glands share, and how do they hand off their responsibilities?

The thyroid and the adrenal glands have different responsibilities, and don’t exactly “hand off” tasks, but they work closely together in the body. The thyroid has many functions, but is primarily concerned with controlling metabolism and calcium balance in the body. The adrenal glands secrete a large number of hormones, including stress hormones, sex hormones, and hormones which act to conserve sodium and increase blood pressure.

diagram of endocrine system male and femaleThere are numerous ways that the glands and their hormones impact one another. Because thyroid controls metabolism and how efficiently the body uses energy, it affects every other system and organ in the body. The adrenal glands impact the thyroid too. Rising levels of cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the adrenals) can decrease the production of thyroid stimulating hormone, thus decreasing thyroid hormone production. High levels of cortisol can also cause thyroid hormone to be converted to a weaker form, creating low thyroid symptoms.

Because of their relationship, both low adrenal function and low thyroid function can create fatigue, sluggishness, lowered sex drive, and depression.

Question: Do you think chronic infection from faulty root canals or general poor mouth health can be a contributing factor for developing adrenal fatigue?

Chronic infection or poor mouth health can absolutely be a contributing factor to the development of adrenal fatigue. The adrenals are the glands of stress, and so recovery from illness and infection—both of which are significant stressors—involves the adrenals. One of the primary functions of the adrenal hormone cortisol is to reduce inflammation. (This is why synthetic drugs that mimic cortisol are frequently prescribed for conditions with an inflammatory component.)

teeth by Flickr user Ewan BellamyIf you are harboring a chronic infection, your adrenals will continue to produce cortisol to try and limit excessive inflammation. The teeth and gums are common locations for this type of sub-acute chronic infection. If you have adrenal fatigue and are incorporating the dietary and lifestyle changes recommended in Adrenal Fatigue: the 21st Century Stress Syndrome and are using the recommended nutritional supplements but are not getting better, an underlying body burden such as chronic infection is likely. Work with a physician to try and identify the underlying cause. Sometimes laboratory tests showing changes in the white blood cell count (the immune cells responsible for fighting infections), an elevated sedimentation rate or high-sensitivity C reactive protein (markers of inflammation), or a low albumin (suggesting chronic disease) can be indicators of chronic infection or inflammation. There are other body burdens which can also tax the adrenals such as an imbalance in intestinal bacteria, the presence of food sensitivities, or chronic exposure to toxic chemicals, but sub-acute chronic infection is a commonly overlooked body burden and adrenal stressor.

Image Credits: Endocrine diagram via Wikimedia Commons; tooth photo by Flickr user Ewan Bellamy

About the Author

Dr. Lise NaugleDr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

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How to Diagnose and Help Adrenal Fatigue

How do doctors diagnose adrenal fatigue?

saliva-testMedicine generally only recognizes Addison’s disease, which is the most extreme end of low adrenal function. Doctors who are familiar with the varying degrees of decreased adrenal function usually test the adrenal hormone levels in your saliva. This is an accurate and useful indicator of adrenal fatigue that is simple and relatively inexpensive. A test kit can be obtained from the lab and the test completed at home by simply spitting into the test tubes 4 times throughout a 24 hour day and filling out an activity sheet to go with the saliva samples. There are other common lab tests that can be used more indirectly to detect adrenal fatigue if the practitioner knows how to interpret them. So if you suspect you are experiencing adrenal fatigue, seek out a healthcare practitioner who is familiar with this problem.

What helps someone with adrenal fatigue?

For most people, a focused program of lifestyle modifications, body-mind practices, specific nutrients and targeted supplementation for adrenal support can help revitalize adrenal function and greatly enhance stress hardiness. In adrenal fatigue, hormone therapy with corticosteroids is usually not necessary or desirable. In fact, taking adrenal steroid hormones suppresses adrenal function and can exacerbate adrenal fatigue. This situation differs from Addison’s disease in which the adrenals are incapable of producing adequate adrenal hormones and an external source is required for continued survival. With adrenal fatigue, the adrenals are still functioning and are capable of returning to optimum with proper support.

What keeps the adrenal glands healthy?

coffee by Flickr user dyobmitThe guidelines for keeping your adrenal glands healthy are very similar to the overall principles of good health but there are a few factors especially important for adrenal support and building stress resilience: Eat regular meals with good quality food that combines balanced amounts of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates at every meal and snack – including breakfast; avoid sugar and stimulants like caffeine (even though it temporarily makes you feel better, it only depletes your adrenals more); exercise moderately; get adequate rest (go to bed by 9:30 PM and sleep in as long as you can in the morning); learn to manage your stressors. Because modern life is so stressful, nutritional supplements designed specifically for adrenal support may also be a great help.

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What is Adrenal Fatigue?

What is adrenal fatigue?

Your adrenal glands respond to every internal and external stress you experience by preparing your body to react to the stressor while maintaining your life-preserving homeostasis. They do this via the various hormones they produce, the primary one being cortisol. In adrenal fatigue the adrenal glands function, but below their optimal level. As a result, adrenal hormone output and the body’s ability to cope with stress are also diminished. Adrenal fatigue is different from Addison’s disease, which is the relatively rare extreme of low adrenal function primarily caused by damage to the adrenal glands from disease. Adrenal fatigue is not a disease and is usually associated with intense or prolonged stress. In these stressful times adrenal fatigue is so common that it is fatigued adrenal glandsestimated to affect most people at some time in their lives. Adrenal fatigue can be mild and transient, but millions of people are currently struggling with a cycle of diminished adrenal function and inescapable stress that can have considerable negative consequences for quality of life and overall health.

What does adrenal fatigue feel like?

As the name suggests, its main symptom is fatigue. This fatigue is not relieved by sleep and has a distinctive pattern that sets it apart from fatigue caused by other health or lifestyle factors. Its pattern primarily reflects the lowered daily fluctuations of cortisol that result from the reduced capacity of the adrenal glands to produce adrenal hormones. In adrenal fatigue, cortisol (which is normally highest at around 8 AM) is low in the morning making it harder for you to wake up and get going, even if you have had a full night’s sleep. The following are common to people experiencing adrenal fatigue:

stressed faded manDifficulty getting up in the morning
• Not fully awake until after 10 AM
• Needs caffeine to get going
• Energy low from mid to late afternoon
• Better energy after 6 PM until around 9 PM
• Second wind from around 11 PM to 1 AM
• Snacks on salty or sweet foods and caffeine to keep going
• Feels run down
• Harder to bounce back from illness or other stresses
• Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
• Lower libido
• Poor sleep
• Sick more often
• Increased symptoms with allergies, PMS or menopause

What causes adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is produced when the output of regulatory adrenal hormones is diminished through over-stimulation of the adrenals by severe, chronic or repeated stress, or because of adrenals weakened by poor nutrition, congenital factors or other influences. The causes of adrenal fatigue usually stem from one of four common sources that overwhelm the adrenal glands:

1. Disease states such as severe or recurrent pneumonia, bronchitis or flu, cancer, AIDS, auto-immune and other illnesses
2. Physical stress such as surgery, poor nutrition, addiction, injury, and exhaustion
3. Emotional/psychological stress from relationships, finances, work or other unavoidable life situations
4. Continual and/or severe environmental stress from toxic chemicals and pollutants in the air, water, clothing or food

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Maintaining Sanity in Times of Stress: Stress Management Tips

Create a sense of control over the situation (or your response to it)

bike in a field by Flickr user Fire At WillA diminished sense of control or mastery over life is a risk factor for depression, and hopelessness can literally transform stress into depression.12 Increasing your sense of control can reduce this risk. If you are feeling stressed, find a way to exert at least some control over the situation. Sometimes just discussing a problem with a supportive friend (not ruminating to yourself, which is associated with depression) and strategizing possible solutions can bring a feeling of increased control over your life and what happens to you. Rarely is there a situation in which you cannot change some aspect or your perception of it, and even small changes can be empowering. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by everyone else’s demands on you and your time. Carving out even 15 minutes a day of self-time can help you feel more in charge of your life and reduce your risk of depression.

Be physically active

Exercise, especially strength training or cardiovascular activity (walking briskly, cycling, swimming, dancing), is a potent antidepressant, increasing endorphins—the “feel good” brain chemicals—and shown to be as effective as drugs and psychotherapy.8

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness has proven to be beneficial with stress reduction, even in cancer patients who experience a high level of both physical and emotional stress. In mindfulness training, people are taught, with the help of meditative practice, to simply pay attention to what is present in the moment. This awareness is done without making judgments about the reasons for, relevance of, or effects of the experience. Immediately after the training, the participants experienced a better quality of life, more joy and less tension. A year later, participants not only maintained those effects, but also reported less depression, anger and mood disturbance, and more vigor.6

Avoid the use of alcohol

Alcohol can disrupt normal sleep patterns making it more difficult to cope with stress. Alcohol also disturbs blood sugar balance, sending it first higher and then allowing it to drop. The drop in blood sugar aggravates the mental and emotional effects of the alcohol and triggers a release of cortisol, putting yet another stress on already overworked adrenal glands. In addition, the metabolism of alcohol depletes B vitamins, crucial to the stress response.

Find a Friend

Loneliness may not be the first thing people think of when they think of a stressor, but loneliness increases the activity of the stress response system and is associated with depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.3, 11 Interventions to decrease loneliness have resulted in dramatic effects on depression reduction.

Support your stress response system

Nutrients particularly important for supporting the function of the adrenals and the stress response system include vitamin C, B6, zinc, magnesium and pantothenic acid. These all play a crucial part in supporting the health of the adrenal gland and in assisting a healthy cortisol response. Stress increases the need for these nutrients. Herbs such as eleutherococcus, ashwagandha and licorice help the body adapt to stress and maintain balance.

help sign by Flickr user LiminaMikeDon’t be afraid to ask for help

It takes strength to do it all alone, but it can take even more to ask for help. Depression, anxiety and other mental-emotional consequences of stress can be extremely painful and difficult to deal with—especially alone. Counselors, psychologists, and both medical and naturopathic physicians can offer options. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

About the Author

Dr. Lise NaugleDr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

References

1. Bhui KS, Dinos S, Stansfeld SA, White PD. A synthesis of the evidence for managing stress at work: a review of the reviews reporting on anxiety, depression, and absenteeism. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:515874. Epub 2012 Feb 14.
2. Brosschot JF, Benschop RJ, Godaert GL, Olff M, De Smet M, Heijnen CJ, Ballieux RE. Influence of life stress on immunological reactivity to mild psychological stress. Psychosom Med. 1994 May-Jun;56(3):216-24.
3. Chang EC, Hirsch JK, Sanna LJ, Jeglic EL, Fabian CG. A preliminary study of perfectionism and loneliness as predictors of depressive and anxious symptoms in Latinas: a top-down test of a model. J Couns Psychol. 2011 Jul;58(3):441-8.
4. Frodl T, O’Keane V. How does the brain deal with cumulative stress? A review with focus on developmental stress, HPA axis function and hippocampal structure in humans. Neurobiol Dis. 2012 Mar 9. [Epub ahead of print]
5. HSE. Health and Safety Statistics 2006/2007. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh0607.pdf
6. Kieviet-Stijnen A, Visser A, Garssen B, Hudig W. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training for oncology patients: patients’ appraisal and changes in well-being. Patient Educ Couns. 2008 Sep;72(3):436-42. Epub 2008 Jul 25.
7. Krugers HJ, Karst H, Joels M. Interactions between noradrenaline and corticosteroids in the brain: from electrical activity to cognitive performance. Front Cell Neurosci. 2012;6:15. Epub 2012 Apr 9.
8. Martinsen, EW. The role of aerobic exercise in the treatment of depression. Stress Medicine 1987; 3(2): 93-100.
9. Mikolajczak M, Quoidbach J, Vanootighem V, Lambert F, Lahaye M, Fillée C, de Timary P. Cortisol awakening response (CAR)’s flexibility leads to larger and more consistent associations with psychological factors than CAR magnitude. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010 Jun;35(5):752-7. Epub 2009 Dec 2.
10. Spickard A Jr, Gabbe SG, Christensen JF. Mid-career burnout in generalist and specialist physicians. JAMA. 2002 Sep 25;288(12):1447-50.
11. VanderWeele TJ, Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, Cacioppo JT. A marginal structural model analysis for loneliness: implications for intervention trials and clinical practice. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2011 Apr;79(2):225-35.
12. Weir K.F.; Jose P.E. A comparison of the response styles theory and the hopelessness theory of depression in preadolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, v28 n3 (2008 08 01): 356-374

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Maintaining Sanity in Times of Stress: How Stress Affects Mental Health

sad young man on benchIt’s not hard to see the physical effects of too much stress; things like muscle tension, fatigue, blood sugar imbalances and rising blood pressure (or dropping blood pressure with adrenal fatigue) are easy to recognize. However, sometimes stress takes an even greater toll on areas which aren’t as visible: your emotional health. Stress can contribute to depression, anxiety, irritability, cynicism, interpersonal problems, emotional exhaustion, and suicide. 1, 10 Chronically stressed people have a harder time responding to additional challenges and take a longer time to recover from them.2 Once you’re juggling the maximum number of balls you can handle, tossing in one more can bring the whole act tumbling to the ground and bring you to tears in the corner. This kind of stress puts a strain on your relationships and affects your ability to function at work. It’s hard to be productive when you can’t concentrate or remember details. A 2007 survey grouped stress, depression and anxiety together as the single largest cause of absences due to work-related illness.5

Stress can affect your mood in many ways. Stress hormones such as cortisol interact and interfere with various neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine7 – brain chemicals involved in regulating mood. There is even evidence that exposure to excessive stress causes damage to brain structure in addition to function. 4

Image credit: Flickr user LeonskiA healthy stress response adapts to a challenge by mobilizing resources and energy, and then when the stress is over, shifting back into balance. Cortisol, secreted by the adrenal glands, is the primary stress hormone in humans and its main function is to help the body deal with all kinds of stress. Chronic pain, low blood sugar, or even giving a speech can induce a rise in your cortisol, which comes to the aid of your stressed body: reducing inflammation, raising blood sugar levels, assisting blood flow, and giving you the “edge” you need to meet the challenge. Once the stress is over, cortisol levels should drop and allow your body to rebalance. However, protracted stress can cause chronic cortisol elevation – and irritability, anxiety and depression. If the stress continues even longer, your adrenals can fatigue with the result that stress response system may not be able to continue to keep pace with the demand for cortisol. At this point, the stressors will still be there, but your ability to adapt to them and handle them will have diminished. Pain and inflammation can worsen, blood sugar levels may drop even lower – resulting in hypoglycemia and the related irritability, spaciness and fatigue. This makes it even more difficult to focus your thoughts or gather the “oomph” to take on any additional challenge, and depression can tighten its grip.

Dealing with stress, depression and its other emotional manifestations is difficult. However, it is possible to intervene in this downward spiral and improve your stress response and your mood.

Continue to part 2 – Stress Management Tips

About the Author

Dr. Lise NaugleDr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

References

1. Bhui KS, Dinos S, Stansfeld SA, White PD. A synthesis of the evidence for managing stress at work: a review of the reviews reporting on anxiety, depression, and absenteeism. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:515874. Epub 2012 Feb 14.
2. Brosschot JF, Benschop RJ, Godaert GL, Olff M, De Smet M, Heijnen CJ, Ballieux RE. Influence of life stress on immunological reactivity to mild psychological stress. Psychosom Med. 1994 May-Jun;56(3):216-24.
3. Chang EC, Hirsch JK, Sanna LJ, Jeglic EL, Fabian CG. A preliminary study of perfectionism and loneliness as predictors of depressive and anxious symptoms in Latinas: a top-down test of a model. J Couns Psychol. 2011 Jul;58(3):441-8.
4. Frodl T, O’Keane V. How does the brain deal with cumulative stress? A review with focus on developmental stress, HPA axis function and hippocampal structure in humans. Neurobiol Dis. 2012 Mar 9. [Epub ahead of print]
5. HSE. Health and Safety Statistics 2006/2007. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh0607.pdf
6. Kieviet-Stijnen A, Visser A, Garssen B, Hudig W. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training for oncology patients: patients’ appraisal and changes in well-being. Patient Educ Couns. 2008 Sep;72(3):436-42. Epub 2008 Jul 25.
7. Krugers HJ, Karst H, Joels M. Interactions between noradrenaline and corticosteroids in the brain: from electrical activity to cognitive performance. Front Cell Neurosci. 2012;6:15. Epub 2012 Apr 9.
8. Martinsen, EW. The role of aerobic exercise in the treatment of depression. Stress Medicine 1987; 3(2): 93-100.
9. Mikolajczak M, Quoidbach J, Vanootighem V, Lambert F, Lahaye M, Fillée C, de Timary P. Cortisol awakening response (CAR)’s flexibility leads to larger and more consistent associations with psychological factors than CAR magnitude. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010 Jun;35(5):752-7. Epub 2009 Dec 2.
10. Spickard A Jr, Gabbe SG, Christensen JF. Mid-career burnout in generalist and specialist physicians. JAMA. 2002 Sep 25;288(12):1447-50.
11. VanderWeele TJ, Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, Cacioppo JT. A marginal structural model analysis for loneliness: implications for intervention trials and clinical practice. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2011 Apr;79(2):225-35.
12. Weir K.F.; Jose P.E. A comparison of the response styles theory and the hopelessness theory of depression in preadolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, v28 n3 (2008 08 01): 356-374

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Let’s Talk About Sex … and Stress: Supporting Your Sexual Response

Sex as natural stress relief

tiger by Tambako the Jaguar

This post is rated R for Rawwr

Some studies show that short term stress or anxiety can actually increase sexual response and sex hormone production. In this type of stress, a branch of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. The SNS stimulates release of adrenaline and noradrenaline from the adrenal glands, which creates a “fight or flight” response, preparing the body to stand up to or escape a stressor and making your heart beat faster and stronger—which also happens when you are aroused sexually. Moderate activation of the SNS—with intense exercise, for example—facilitates sexual arousal in women. In fact, sex hormones temporarily increase in response to brief stress in both men and women. So even though chronic stress interferes with sexual response and inhibits production of sex hormones, short duration stress can actually assist libido!  However, subjective reports of arousal don’t always correspond to physiological measures of arousal. In order to find enjoyment from sex, it is important that both your body and your brain are into it.

What’s really intriguing is that not only does stress impact your sex life (see part 1 on the effects of stress on sex drive), but the reverse is true: your sex life can impact your ability to handle stress! Women who had positive physical contact from their partners prior to a stressful event exhibited significantly lower cortisol levels and heart rate responses to the stress. Interestingly, verbal support from partners did nothing to reduce the women’s stress response. In another study, intimacy in couples’ everyday life was associated with reduced daily cortisol levels. Intimacy seemed to offer a buffering effect against work-related elevations in cortisol.

Ways to enhance both your sexual response and your stress response:

  • massage by zaphodsotherheadGive and receive positive physical contact. Hold hands, dance, give your partner a back rub, hug each other. This helps combat the stress response, and it can foster a positive emotional connection. Both emotional and physiological arousal are important in a healthy sexual response.
  • Find ways to leave your stress outside the bedroom door. Write down the things that you need to remember so they will be less apt to intrude in your brain at inopportune times. Distraction can be a real mood-killer.
  • Try snuggling up with your love for a scary movie or paddling some class IV white water rapids together. Short term stress can increase sexual response.
  • Support your stress response system nutritionally. Herbs like ashwagandha and eleutherococcus (formerly Siberian ginseng) help your body adapt to stress, while maca has been shown to support healthy sexual function in both men and women.
  • If you have adrenal fatigue, support your adrenals with nutritional supplements – such as B vitamins, vitamin C, manganese, magnesium and adaptogenic herbs. This can help them produce the DHEA you need for libido as well as the cortisol you need to manage stress.
  • Hit the gym for a quick work out. A brief bout of intense exercise facilitates physiological arousal.
  • Keep it fun. Focus on the process rather than the end. Don’t add stress needlessly.
  • Make time to practice physical intimacy with your partner. This in itself can reduce cortisol levels, and reduced cortisol levels are associated with improved sexual response.

Don’t let stress take over the bedroom. Practice connection, inject a little excitement, and keep things fun. As you manage your stress response, you’ll be supporting your sexual response, and by supporting your sexuality, you’ll receive the added benefit of reducing your stress in the process.

Photo credits: Flickr users Tamboko the Jaguar and zaphodsotherhead

About the Author

Dr. Lise NaugleDr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

References

Bradford A, Meston CM. The impact of anxiety on sexual arousal in women. Behav Res Ther. 2006 Aug;44(8):1067-77. Epub 2005 Sep 30.
Brooks NA, Wilcox G, Walker KZ et al. Beneficial effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on psychological symptoms and measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal woman are not related to estrogen or androgen content. Menopause. 2008 Nov-Dec;15(6):1157-1162.
Ditzen B, Hoppmann C, Klumb P. Positive couple interactions and daily cortisol: on the stress-protecting role of intimacy. Psychosom Med. 2008 Oct;70(8):883-9. Epub 2008 Oct 8.
Ditzen B, Neumann ID, Bodenmann G, von Dawans B, Turner RA, Ehlert U, Heinrichs M. Effects of different kinds of couple interaction on cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Jun;32(5):565-74. Epub 2007 May 11.
Hamilton LD, Meston CM. The role of salivary cortisol and DHEA-S in response to sexual, humorous, and anxiety-inducing stimuli. Horm Behav. 2011 May;59(5):765-71. Epub 2010 Dec 30.
Hamilton LD, Rellini AH, Meston CM. Cortisol, sexual arousal, and affect in response to sexual stimuli. J Sex Med. 2008 Sep;5(9):2111-8. Epub 2008 Jul 4.
Lennartsson AK, Kushnir MM, Bergquist J, Billig H, Jonsdottir IH. Sex steroid levels temporarily increase in response to acute psychosocial stress in healthy men and women. Int J Psychophysiol. 2012 Mar 9. [Epub ahead of print]
Rivier C, Rivest S. Effect of stress on the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis: peripheral and central mechanisms. Biol Reprod. 1991 Oct;45(4):523-32.
Shin BC, Lee MS, Yang EJ, Lim HS, Ernst E.Maca (L. meyenii) for improving sexual function: a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2010 Aug 6;10:44. Review.
Ter Kuile MM, Vigeveno D, Laan E. Preliminary evidence that acute and chronic daily psychological stress affect sexual arousal in sexually functional women. Behav Res Ther. 2007 Sep;45(9):2078-89. Epub 2007 Mar 19.
Zenico T, Cicero AF, Valmorri L, Mercuriali M, Bercovich E. Subjective effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) extract on well-being and sexual performance in patients with mild erectile dysfunction: a randomized, double-blind clinical trial. Andrologia. 2001 Apr; 41(2):95-9.

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Let’s talk about sex … and stress: The effects of stress on sex drive

It’s a Friday evening, and you’re looking forward to a special evening alone with your partner. You collect your things to leave the office … when your boss dumps an extra project on your desk for the weekend. Then some hotshot in a turbocharged sports car cuts you off, and you spill your drink on your lap. By the time you finally arrive at home, you realize you left your passion somewhere between your desk and the exit ramp.

The Relationship Between Stress and Sex

man not interested in sexThe relationship between stress and sex is complex, but clinicians and lovers have long recognized stress’s ability to interfere with human sexuality and reproduction. The stress response is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The sexual response is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. Notice some similarities? The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that controls the “four Fs” of our most basic instincts: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and … mating. The hypothalamus directs the pituitary, or “master gland,” which is found as a small protrusion off of the hypothalamus. The pituitary controls the secretion of hormones throughout the body. Depending on the messages it receives from the hypothalamus, it may signal the adrenals to secrete cortisol, a stress hormone, or the gonads to secrete sex hormones. Stress hormones can impact and interfere with sexual function at all three levels of the HPG axis: at the brain, pituitary, and gonads.

However, in addition to stress hormones, the adrenals can also produce DHEA, a sex hormone. DHEA is a precursor to both testosterone and estrogen. Although testosterone is often thought of as a male hormone, women also have it in smaller amounts, and it has a strong impact on libido. In menstruating women, the ovaries are the major source of testosterone, but the adrenals contribute via their production of DHEA. After menopause, the adrenals become critical to a woman’s supply. If a woman has adrenal fatigue, not only will her production of stress hormones decrease, but her testosterone—and her libido—will too.

Higher stress is associated with reduced sexual functioning in general. Women who had higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and lower levels of DHEA (the sex hormone) after watching an erotic movie experienced less physiological arousal than women with a lower cortisol/DHEA ratio. Prolonged stress has been shown to decrease sexual response in women, and women with greater levels of chronic daily stress report more sexual complaints.

Stress can interfere with sex on a psychological level, too. Cognitive distraction (thinking or worrying about problems) interferes with sexual functioning. So if you are ruminating about multiple stressors, it will be difficult to put your full attention on either your partner or your own sensations and responses.

Continue to part 2 – Supporting Your Sexual Response

Photo credit: Flickr user focus.recompose

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